“There is no life without farming,” an out of breath Wilson Ngema (55) shouts over the phone.
The mixed farmer is running through the picturesque forests of eMkhondo on the southern tip of Mpumalanga trying to wrangle his cattle that had just escaped from his 37-hectare farm.
Born and raised in the booming forest town formerly known as Piet Retief, for Ngema this is not an out-of-the-ordinary experience.
“I am chasing cattle here!” he continues. “I grew up on a farm, and I am a farm boy. I used to work on a farm, chasing cattle and planting maize, farming is in my veins,” he says.
“I just got these cattle yesterday, so they don’t know this area.”
His dream to farm started young, but only came became reality in 2014 when he acquired land from the department of agriculture.
“I kept going back, because farming is in my veins,” he says.
‘We must create an environment where our youngsters are able to grow food for themselves.’
While Ngema worked as a farmworker as a young boy, he spent 21 years working as a technician for Telkom to earn an income.
He would only recommit to the trade through Insika Yesizwe South Africa, a non-profit agricultural organisation he founded in 2011.
Today he is the proud owner of Sunroute Farming, a 37-hectare farm producing cattle, goats and vegetables including spinach and cabbage that are sourced by Spar, Pick ‘n Pay and Boxer.
While he is on the rise to becoming a successful farmer, Ngema says many challenges hamper his growth.
Resources and financial support for black farmers are like snake’s teeth. “I am working from hand to mouth, but I must carry on.
“Our garden has no fencing and I use plastics to create fencing. When you start farming and you do not even own a tractor or a bakkie, working on your own expense is not easy at all. It is very difficult, but what can I do? I have to keep going,” he says.
Agri passion never fades
Through Insika Yesizwe South Africa, Ngema aims to unify, black, white, Indian, and coloured people through youth development opportunities in agriculture. “We have no alternative home, this is it,” he says.
Ngema adds, “We have a collective responsibility to work the land, protect our environment, bring social cohesion, and create a better future for our children.
“The challenge posed by land reform in South Africa are complex and could potentially pose a threat to food security and political stability in the country if solutions benefiting all South Africans cannot be found.”
‘Politics of South Africa will never see you flourish. Hatred is creating a distance between our people and farmers.’
The political landscape should be steered towards unity, especially in agriculture, Ngema believes.
“This hullabaloo with all this politics will never bring growth in our country,” he says.
“The food we are eating now comes from people we don’t even know, if you go to a supermarket shelf by shelf there is not even a single product that is produced by black people in our community. That worries me.
“We must create an environment where our youngsters are able to grow food for themselves.”
Farming is not ‘pap en vleis’
You will never go wrong in the business of food production, he believes. But if you are in it to get rich quick then you are in the wrong business, he cautions.
“Farming is not pap en vleis. If you have a farm, it does not mean you have money. You can’t just have land then snap your fingers and be rich.”
Do not underestimate the value of mentorship, he urges. Commercial or starter, there is ample opportunity to learn from each other.
“It is good to humble yourself,” he says. “I like the statement of Nelson Mandela, where he says, ‘Let us learn from one another, let us build a rainbow nation’. I want to see us build a nation where we can transfer skills to one another.
“You can go to the department of agriculture and ask what successful projects they are busy with. They cannot show you because they have isolated themselves from especially commercial farmers.”
Politics and farming are like water and oil, the only “right side” is the side of the producer, he says passionately. “Politics of South Africa will never see you flourish. Hatred is creating a distance between our people and farmers.
“You go to townships and you can see a fire in the veins of youngsters who want to farm. These are young women and men who have farming in their hearts, but they have never even seen a tractor, or they have never even seen a cow. Imagine if you can expand their dream to farm by taking them to a real farm?”
His sense of mission is palpable, even over the phone.
“To isolate youth from commercial farmers means you kill their dreams. We cannot do this on our own, we need each other.”